Schumpeter on Ideology

Schumpeter on Ideology February 3, 2016

In a famous 1949 essay on “Science and Ideology,” published in American Economic Review, Joseph Schumpeter highlighted the role of ideology is scientific research, including economic research. The majority of economists, he said, “are ready enough to admit its presence though, like Marx, they find it only in others and never in themselves; but they do not admit that it is an inescapable curse and that it vitiates economics to its core.” This “balanced” position is the problem, as he goes on to explain:

ideologies are not simply lies; they are truthful statements about what a man thinks he sees. Just as the medieval knight saw himself as he wished to see himself and just as the modern bureaucrat does the same and just as both failed and fail to see whatever may be adduced against their seeing themselves as the defenders of the weak and innocent and the sponsors of the Common Good, so every other social group develops a protective ideology which is nothing if not sincere. Ex hypothesi we are not aware of our rationalizations – how then is it possible to recognize and to guard against them.”

How indeed? We recognize the universality of ideology but cannot see our own biases clearly. What is to be done?

As Scott Gustafson puts it (At the Altar of Wall Street, 198-9), Schumpeter’s answer is “Nothing is to be done.” There are two reasons. First, “the dynamics of human discourse, in Schumpeter’s view, eventually reveals an ideology to be an ideology. Ideologies don’t reign supreme forever, and we keep up the debate and wait it out. As Schumpeter put it, “no economic ideology lasts forever and that, with a likelihood that approximates certainty, we eventually grow out of each. This follows not only from the fact that social patterns change and that hence every economic ideology is bound to wither but also from the relation that ideology bears to that prescientific cognitive act which we have called vision. Since this act induces fact finding and analysis and since these tend to destroy whatever will not stand their tests, no economic ideology could survive indefinitely even in a stationary social world. As time wears on and these tests are being perfected, they do their work more quickly and more effectively. But this still leaves us with the result that some ideology will always be with us and so, I feel convinced, it will.”

More importantly, we wouldn’t want to get rid of ideology even if we could. Ideology is essential to scientific progress. Emphasizing the relation “between ideology and vision,” he concludes that “That prescientific cognitive act which is the source of our ideologies is also the prerequisite of our scientific work. No new departure in any science is possible without it. Through it we acquire new material for our scientific endeavors and something to formulate, to defend, to attack. Our stock of facts and tools grows and rejuvenates itself in the process. And so-though we proceed slowly because of our ideologies, we might not proceed at all without them.”

This is how science advances, not by a process of piling fact upon fact, but by working out the implications of a perceived relation between different phenomena that Schumpeter calls Intuition: “perception of a set of related phenomena is a prescientific act. It must be performed in order to give to our minds something to do scientific work on-to indicate an object of research – but it is not scientific in itself. But though prescientific, it is not preanalytic. It does not simply consist in perceiving facts by one or more of our senses. These facts must be recognized as having some meaning or relevance that justifies our interest in them and they must be recognized as related-so that we might separate them from others -which involves some analytic work by our fancy or common sense. This mixture of perceptions and prescientific analysis we shall call the research worker’s Vision or Intuition.”

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